My mom taught me how to find “holes-in-the-walls” in New York City. I have often said that some of the greatest NYC stores and restaurants last for generations, indeed some continue on for over a century and become legends. You’ll find the extraordinary of them listed in my Restaurants pages, their value marches down the corridors of time as a semaphore of value.
At some point a business transcends the ‘transactional‘. We develop a relationship with a place, with the people who work there, with the owners, it becomes part of the fabric of our everyday life. The business takes on a life, personality, smell and pulse of its own.
A step into Rocco’s was like a trip into the past. Their doorway led to an old time Italian bakery which used to be ubiquitous. Open the door, the intense smells of chocolate, espresso, sugar, cheese, licorice and others, combined to lift your nose and top of you head like a rush of sweet air. Walk through the threshold and step into 1965, instead of almost 60 years old, i’m now 6. As the full environment of intoxicants takes effect my being is transformed into the literal kid in a candy store. Over the decades i’ve brought more people, friends, to Rocco’s than i can count and watched that same transformation happen in each of them, to my joy.
New York City has two great equalizers that encourage food businesses. In 1811 the grid’ was imposed on Manhattan island. This had the effect of making equal sized parcels of land that standardized space around the city. The other is the one-fare subway system that provides fast easy access to labor and goods throughout the geographic city, which includes 4 major islands and the mainland.
I’ve mentioned “pop-up” restaurants, which have their demise date either publicly stated, or it’s obvious the first time you walk in the concept won’t last. When old, stalwart establishments that anchor a neighbor die, you can feel the impact spread through the community near and far. You can see it on the faces of people as the news spreads and they consider how their lives have been changed forever, a piece of that life ripped from the fabric of their lives.
First there are subtle signs. The staff changes, the stock dwindles, Then one day there is a hand written sign on the door. Sometimes they thank the community for years of loyal patronage. More often they say things like “closed for renovation”, “closed for vacation”, “will reopen in”….. It matters not.
Sometimes the windows are covered with opaque paper, like the mirror’s in a house in mourning sitting shiva. The anxious patrons peer in the windows, in denial, looking for signs that the evidence before their eyes is not true.
I did that very dance last night while giving a food tour of Bleecker street. This was once again happening, not to someone else, but to me. We had a phenomenal “off the menu” meal at Pesce Pasta and didn’t have desert in anticipation of a visit to Rocco’s Pasticerria for the best cannoli in The City. I don’t make the claim of “Best cannoli in The City” lightly. At Rocco’s they fill each cannoli lovingly by hand when you order it. The shell never gets a chance to get soggy from the luscious ricotta filling. Then they ask if you would like chocolate chips OR pistachio, The correct response is always “yes”. When we got there the place was dark (isn’t it supposed to be open until midnight?). On the window the frightful, handwritten sign. I knew what it said but I didn’t want to read it. Looking through the window – the displays and refrigeration units that were there for my entire lifetime, ripped out and gone. The only thing left were the string holders used to wrap boxes the old fashioned way, a relic of a past now gone.
The sign might be telling the truth, but they hardly ever do. There is no way this could be reconstructed by the end of the year, let alone by the end of the month. Like the aftermath of an ER trauma room after a failed rescue, ghostly quiet and empty. You can see that something fast, awful and traumatic happened here, just hours or minutes ago and the living beings that occupied this space will not be returning while it’s in its current state.
Rest In Peace Rocco’s. You will be sorely missed and lovingly remembered. I will have to travel to Palermo to get a great cannoli rather than walk several blocks from my home.
It is my sincerest hope that the sign in the window is merely optimistic and they somehow will somehow, someday be back, and soon. I will then write a Samuel Clemens type blog about the news of their death being exaggerated.
I wish the owners and employees who worked there for decades godspeed in their mission.
If any knows a bakery that still ties boxes in overhead string, or a place that fills canonoli’s to order, please let us all know in the comments section.